Is It a Stomach Bug or Gastroenteritis?

When I was a kid, there were two types of illness in our household.  If it was a respiratory illness, you had a cold.  It was either a “head cold” and a minor inconvenience, or it was the dreaded “chest cold” and the victim was a very sick kid.  If it was a stomach or intestinal illness, it was the “flu.”  A kid with the flu was put on the sofa with a glass of warm ginger ale, some saltine crackers and a bucket.

Now I know that what we called the “flu” was probably viral gastroenteritis, an intestinal infection marked by watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting, and sometimes fever.  Viral gastroenteritis is extremely infectious, often passing from person to person because an infected person did not wash their hands after using the bathroom.  Viral gastroenteritis symptoms usually appear one to three days after you’re infected and can range from mild to severe. Symptoms usually last just a day or two, but occasionally they may persist as long as 10 days.

A basically healthy person is likely recover without complications. But for infants, older adults and people with compromised immune systems, viral gastroenteritis can be deadly.

The best way to prevent the spread of intestinal infections is to follow these precautions:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and rinse thoroughly. Carry sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer for times when soap and water aren’t available.
  • Use separate personal items around your home. Avoid sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses and plates. Use separate towels in the bathroom.
  • Keep your distance. Avoid close contact with anyone who has the virus, if possible.
  • Disinfect hard surfaces. If someone in your home has viral gastroenteritis, disinfect hard surfaces, such as counters, faucets and doorknobs.

The most likely complication of viral gastroenteritis is dehydration.  Infants, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems may become severely dehydrated when they lose more fluids than they can replace. Hospitalization might be needed so that lost fluids can be replaced intravenously.

To help keep a person with viral gastroenteritis more comfortable and prevent dehydration while they recover, try the following:

  • Stop eating solid foods for a few hours.
  • Try sucking on ice chips or taking small sips of water, clear soda, clear broths or noncaffeinated sports drinks. Drink plenty of liquid every day, taking small, frequent sips.
  • Ease back into eating. Gradually begin to eat bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as soda crackers, toast, gelatin, bananas, rice and chicken. Stop eating if your nausea returns.
  • Avoid dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and fatty or highly seasoned foods.
  • Get plenty of rest. The illness and dehydration may have made you weak and tired.
  • Be cautious with medications. If you are concerned about a medication, contact the prescribing doctor to get advice.

How do you know when it’s time to see the doctor?  If the person with viral gastroenteritis is an adult, call the doctor if:

  • They are not able to keep liquids down for 24 hours
  • They have been vomiting for more than two days
  • They are vomiting blood
  • They are dehydrated — signs of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little or no urine, and severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • There is blood in their bowel movements
  • They have a fever above 104 F (40 C)

Viral gastroenteritis can be dangerous to older adults. The adult immune system tends to become less efficient later in life. If you have an older person in your life who develops nausea and/or diarrhea, keep a close eye on them.  Make sure they are taking in fluids, and don’t be afraid to call the doctor if you have concerns.